This report explores the "strong man thesis" in Latin American politics; that is, the thesis that personal loyalties to a leader are characteristically stronger than institutional loyalties, e.g., to constitutional government. The social and historical roots of the Latin American "strong man" are traced in history and culture. A case study of the "strong man thesis" is found in an evaluation of the career and legacy of Argentina's Juan Peron and the Peronista movement which he founded.
"We are going to teach the South American republics to
elect good men" (U.S. President Woodrow Wilson).
The sentence quoted above is illustrative not only of the U.S. attitude of hegemonic paternalism toward Latin America, but also of the persistent role of personalism in Latin American politics. Wilson, it may be noted, did not say that he was going to teach the Latin Americans to "establish good institutions." He could hardly have done so, since the formal structures of most Latin American republics were then and are now modelled more or less closely on that of the United States itself. He focused on "good men" because the general perception outside (and often inside) Latin America was that the region was dominated by "bad men," whose personal power overrode that of the formal institutions of government. The coup and the caudillo are enduring figures in our image of Latin America justly so, perhaps, in a region where there were more than 100 successful revolutions between independence and World War I (Johnson, 1964, p. 4).
The force of personality has deep roots in Latin America. The conquistadors, men like Cortes and Pizarro, led bands of hundreds to the conquest of empires whose subjects numbered in the millions. Cortes' action in burning his ships to bar all retreat after landing in Mexico is symbolic of the qualities of reckless personal drive that have shaped Latin American politics ever since. Likewise, the military a...